Every year there is an annual hand-wringing over American Educational Achievement scores. It seems we rank 26th in this and 19th in that. So, the annual blame game begins. Is it the fault of the teachers for not teaching the students? Is it the fault of administration and state governments for not giving teachers the tools they need to succeed? Is it the fault of the parents for not giving their sons and daughters a fighting chance?
After seeing letter after letter to the editor I decided to use this space to provide an insider perspective. I thought about writing my own letter, but I decided this was a more appropriate forum. After all, I can get more interactive feedback here. So, here goes a simple common sense approach to this question.
Before we start wringing our hands about how bad our educational system is, let’s first figure out what the test is measuring, who it is measuring, and what that all means. In most industrialized countries, students are eventually placed into different educational environments depending on their particular abilities. When this occurs and how it occurs depends on the country, but the United States is the only country I know that compels every citizen to remain in a college preparatory educational environment until their 18th birthday (at least officially and systemically).
So, the very first question I’d ask is not why we are losing, but exactly who is being tested in all of these different countries. I certainly don’t have hard evidence in every single testing nation, but I would lay you odds we are the only ones testing the unwashed masses. The proof of the pudding here is to take a look at private school scores. Proponents of school choice and private schools love to trumpet the improved achievement. Sure, if you allow me to select the student body then I can guarantee better results.
The next fact is somewhat connected to money, but money always muddies the water. It is a fact that the United States is near the bottom in how much it spends per student, but there are good reasons for that. If you look at actual dollars spent per contact hour then we are quite competitive. The problem is that most other countries go to school longer in the day and more days throughout the year. Most of us (nationwide) are paid on a per day basis. So, if you lengthened the school year we would get more money.
If the United States is to match what other countries are doing we would have to go to school about a month longer and probably an hour or two more each day. If you adjusted our pay to match that then we would be paid competitively with those other teachers. I’d imagine there would be quite a bit of blow back from everyone considering a longer school day and a longer school calendar. However, there are some schools and states that do it and the results speak for themselves. Locally, the KIPP Academies use a longer school day and a longer calendar and the achievement scores are very promising.
So, to keep this reply short, we see three predominant factors that affect our scores. First, everyone in the United States is being tested while those other countries have separated the wheat from the chaff. Secondly, they are going to school more hours in the day and more days in the year. Finally, their teacher to pupil ratios are also generally lower than ours. While those three don’t explain all of the discrepancy, I’m sure it explains most of it.
I’m not necessarily advocating we remove some students from traditional college bound schools (check that, I actually am). I’m not advocating that we go to school longer and for more days (although it is an intriguing idea). I’m simply stating that when comparing achievement scores you need to look at the basic factors affecting the scores. So, the next time this debate comes up just ask yourself the basic questions. Who is being tested? How long do they spend in school? How many days are they in school? Then, you can move onto the popular hot button issues.